By Steve Aschburner
CHICAGO – Winning the news conference is going to be easier for a while than winning the basketball games for the Chicago Bulls. As in three to five seasons while.
John Paxson, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, has assured people so many times since last Thursday that the Bulls are headed in a new direction, a no-brainer promotion for 2017-18 is inevitable.
Of course, this route the Bulls have chosen isn’t one you’d choose either to save time or enjoy the scenery. It’s a dingy drive down back alleys and dark streets, past broken bottles and – aargh! – through good ol’ Chicago potholes, many the same ones Michael, Scottie, Dennis and Phil navigated.
Paxson and general manager Gar Forman haven’t put the Bulls on this path because it’s necessarily a better one – there are no guarantees they’re even going to reach their desired destination – but simply because it’s a different one.
Different from sitting stone still in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Eisenhower, the Kennedy or the Dan Ryan expressways, which is where the Bulls were stuck. They were a “playoff” team this spring in the same way 5 o’clock is a “rush” hour.
Headed. Nowhere. Fast.
“Jimmy Butler’s an All-Star player, so Minnesota got the great player in this deal,” Paxson said. “But we’ve defined our direction. We made the playoffs nine out of 10 years – wasn’t good enough. We have to now re-set what we’re about.”
Into the angry basketball intersection of frustrated drivers, raised hoods, flat tires and honking horns strolled three innocents Tuesday morning. Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen have nothing to do with where the Bulls have been or how they got so jammed up, but they presumably will have much to do with getting the franchise unstuck before this decade runs out.
“We’re thrilled to have ‘em,” Paxson said. “I’m not worried about perception. We understand this will take time and is a process. But as long as these kids play hard and compete, our fans will appreciate them. And we’ll get better.”
They sat at the head table set up on the Bulls’ practice court Thursday, young guys in suits eager to help this NBA team or that. A few days earlier, LaVine and Dunn were Timberwolves, part of an ongoing rebuild in Minnesota that may have taken its biggest step toward relevancy by trading them. Markkanen was in New York, in the hopper for 2017 lottery picks, prepared to tug on the ball cap of a half dozen different franchises of various ambitions and plights.
At this early stage, you probably wouldn’t lay big money on the three new Bulls even if they were suiting up for Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league. But on a late June morning, their enthusiasm, their smiles and their back stories – really, a Good, Bad & Ugly trio of situations – won the news conference. And the winning has to start somewhere.
Markkanen could be building block
Given his lanky build, his blond hair, his demonstrated skills as a “stretch 4 (or more)” and the way old Bulls boss Phil Jackson had thrust prized Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis uncomfortably into the spotlight lately, it was hard to look at Markkanen sitting there mostly ignored Thursday and not see the “Porzingis Lite” he’d been billed by some heading into the draft.
It was also hard, as one reporter noted, not to see the stereotype of the 7-foot Euro player who may not be accustomed to physical play.
“I know that stereotype of player,” the Finnish-by-way-of-Arizona big man said, a bit bemused. “But I don’t include myself in that. I’m not soft. I play hard. I see [that image] but I think it’s getting away slowly, from players from overseas changing that.”
Markkanen is said to have classic pick-and-pop potential, with a shooting stroke to die for; he reportedly made 19 consecutive corner 3-pointers when he worked out for Boston. He said he is fine playing either power forward or center, and is willing to tread inside or out.
He’s a “sneaky athlete,” per Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who has watched lots of Markkanen video since the draft night deal. “His ability to stretch the floor and play both frontline positions is where this league is going.”
Dunn gets fresh start
The Bulls, like the rest of the NBA, liked Dunn a lot more about 370 days ago. Back then, he was merely Minnesota’s rumored selection with the No. 5 pick and the newcomer whom both the league’s general managers and Dunn’s incoming class of newbies felt would be the 2017 Rookie of the Year.
That honor went to second-rounder Malcolm Brogdon on Monday. Dunn didn’t even crack the second-team all-rookie squad. In a relatively unproductive group, he wound up No. 24 in scoring at 3.8 points per game. He shot only 37.7 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from three-point range.
The plausible reasons for Dunn’s underwhelming first season are many: Spotty usage and a short leash from coach Tom Thibodeau, new himself last season and adapting to a new roster and culture. The big adjustment to the NBA, not unlike the two seasons it took Dunn to get his legs under him at Providence. The Wolves’ split allegiance to Ricky Rubio as the default starter. An inability to ever get confident with his shot, since he had only four games in which he attempted more than eight field goals.
And then there’s the killer, the possibility that scouts, coaches and fellow players all were wrong about Dunn and he just isn’t going to be that good.
“My personal mentality is just to never give up,” Dunn said. “Last year, I accept that I had a bad year. But I’m always in the gym right now, every day I’m trying to get in the gym so I don’t have a bad year this year.”
Dunn’s personal history – notably, his hard-scrabble youth being raised (or not) by a mother who spent time in jail – dwarfs the hardships he faced on a $3.8 million salary in pro basketball last season. But some lessons are applicable.
“Throughout my whole life, I had a lot of ups and downs,” said Dunn, whose tenacity on defense at least gave Minnesota something. “The reason why I got here was, I never gave up. I have a great family I have great friends. And they always push me, no matter what.”
LaVine continues recovery with new team
If there’s any franchise that doesn’t need to be courting anterior-cruciate troubles, it’s Chicago. Derrick Rose’s devastating initial ACL rupture in April 2012, followed by Rose’s subsequent injuries and absences, is the “Creation of Adam” moment for this Bulls rebuild five years later.
So now they have swapped out one of the most durable performers in the NBA, Butler, for a high-flying, two-time Slam Dunk champion grounded since February by the torn ligament in his left leg.
The prospect of LaVine taking over not Butler’s role as the team’s most dynamic player but merely Rose’s MRI appointments is cringe-worthy. The prospect of him losing a few inches (a foot?) off his improbable sky-walking vertical leap is daunting enough.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves’ precocious center, was working out in Minneapolis with LaVine before the trade and said his pal was ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation. Several NBA players have come back fine from ACL tears and, usually, the younger they incur it, the better.
LaVine turned 22 in March, his season over after just 47 games in which he averaged 18.9 points and made 38.7 percent of his 3-pointers.
“[I’m] very confident I’ll come back better,” LaVine said. “This has given me time to work on my mental game, my strength, and just learn the game of basketball. I have no fear at all.”
LaVine was picked surprising high in 2014, 13th overall, by the late Flip Saunders who liked the teenager’s combination of raw athleticism and drive. Sam Mitchell, the coach who subbed for Saunders before and after his death in 2015-16, devoted long, added hours to working with LaVine on basketball subtleties. Hoiberg knew and respected those coaches from his time with Minnesota.
“The way that people rave about his work ethic, about his daily approach, about the time he spends in the gym, about how he has attacked this injury on a daily basis to get himself back on the court as soon as possible, it’s unbelievable,” the Bulls coach said.
“Because of how athletic he is, and the way he shoots the ball, he’s still got a lot of room to grow. When you have a guy, who can get out and make highlight-level plays above the rim and also shoot the ball five feet behind the 3-point line, you’ve got a guy you can do a lot of things with.”
LaVine has a youthful sense of energy and wonder – he initially thought the body of water beyond his hotel window was an ocean, not Lake Michigan – but a wiser, caution-first approach to his injury comeback. It’s possible the Bulls won’t have him on the United Center court until after the season begins.
There is no urgency for LaVine to rush back. No reason to put himself in a crazy, Rose-like injury loop. No need at all to hurry up and wait while the losses mount and the lottery balls tumble.
The Bulls have Google-mapped themselves a new direction, and they’re taking the long way home.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980.